The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

1. When was this book first published? Where does it fit chronologically in relation to the other books we have studied? Are there ways in which it seems to you a more contemporary book than The Street or Meridian?

2. What is the reference in the epigraph, "Sixty Million and more"?

3. Why do you think the book is titled "Beloved" rather than "Sethe" or "The Ghost" or some such? What features of the book does the title emphasize? Is the biblical echo significant?

4. When does this story open? (1873) Why do you think Morrison chose this date for the beginning of the story?

5. What do we learn at first about the family's relationship with the outer world? About the death of Baby Suggs? What had been her experience of life?

6. What are some notable features of Toni Morrison's style? What are some of the features of her manner of storytelling?

7. What is the central event around which the novel turns? Why do you think we only learn about the basic facts gradually, as though unravelling a puzzle?

8. What had occurred to the historical Margaret Garner? To what other famous story/poem does this novel indirectly allude? Is Morrison's view of the events leading to a slavemother's escape as positive as Stowe's or Harper's?

9. What do we learn about the circumstances under which Beloved's grave was carved?

10. What are some of the memories of "Sweet Home" evoked by the appearance of Paul D.? Is the title ironic?

11. What do we learn about Sethe's former husband? The circumstances under which her back has become scarred?

12. How do Sethe and Paul D. feel about their reunion after eighteen years? How does Paul D. respond to Sethe's explanation that a ghost is haunting their house?

13. How are readers supposed to respond to the claim that Beloved haunts her mother's house? How does this supernatural element affect the book's tone?

14. Are there grotesque elements of the narrative? If so, what purposes do they serve?

15. Are there parallels between this book and others we have read, for example, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Meridian?

16. What evicts the ghost? Are there symbolic elements to this scene?

17. What psychological processes does this act and Paul D.'s return initiate?

18. What events of the past do Paul D. and Sethe each remember after having sex? Why are Paul D.'s memories of eating corn described with such fervor? (27)

19. How does Denver react to Paul D.'s presence? Do you find this a realistic detail?

20. What do we learn about the circumstances of Denver's birth? (29ff.) Through whose imagination is the story told?

21. What had Sethe expected when she heard a voice in the grass? What do we learn about the white girl who facilitates her escape?

22. What have been the circumstances of Amy Denver's life? In what ways does she help Sethe? (34-35)

23. What beliefs about the nature of memory does Sethe convey to her daughter? (36) Are these beliefs self-evident? Do you think these may relate to Morrison's view about the nature and role of art?

24. What role does the schoolteacher play in her story?

25. Why is the novel told through a series of flashbacks? Is the chronological sequence always clear?

26. What do we know about Paul D.? What has been his past? (prison farm, war, wanderer, 40-41) What seems to be the basis of his attachment to Sethe?

27. What is significant about Sethe's new concern for the drabness of their home? What seems her response to the presence of Paul D.?

28. What form of entertainment does the new family enjoy together?

29. What symbolic circumstances attend Beloved's return to 124? What do you make of her literal, physical return?

30. Why doesn't Paul D. ask about her circumstances? (52) Are there humorous elements to the scene? (53)

31. What account is given of African-American wanderers at the time? (52)

32. What is Denver's response to the newcomer? What types of information does she conceal? (matters which might place Beloved in an unfavorable light) What do you think may be her motive?

33. What do you make of Beloved's eating and sleeping habits?

34. What does Paul D. sense about Beloved?

35. What does Beloved coax from Sethe? Had she been able to talk about her past before? (58)

36. What memories does the mention of the earrings evoke? How/under what circumstances had Sethe been married?

37. What memories does Sethe have of her mother? What had she learned of her father? Of her siblings?

38. What finally happened to Sethe's mother? Who had cared for Sethe?

39. What does she remember about the language of her mother and of her youth? What do you infer from this?

40. What attitude does Beloved take toward Sethe? What oddity characterizes her questions?

41. What is Paul D.'s attitude toward the newcomer?

42. According to the Paul D/the narrator, why can't she be evicted? (presence of Klan, 66)

43. How does Beloved relate to Denver? (67)

44. What new facts about her husband's death does Paul D. reveal to Sethe?

45. What is significant about Paul D.'s memories of a rooster? What has been the fate of his comrades? ("one crazy, one sold, one burnt. . . ," 72)

46. What shared project is meant by Sethe and Paul D.'s venture toward "beating back the past"? (73)

47. What are Sethe's memories of Amy? Is she entirely favorably drawn? What are her ambitions and preoccupations?

Is there a symbolism to where the child is born?

48. How is the birth itself described? Could Sethe have given birth alone?

49. How does Sethe make it to the other side of the river? (Stamp Paid rows her across, 91). Who helps her and brings her to her new location on her arrival? (John and Ella, a black couple, 92)

50. What do we learn about Baby Suggs' character and occupation? (informal preacher, 87; preaches self-respect, 88)

What effect does she have on others? What advice does she give her daughter-in-law? (lay burden down, 86)

51. How had Baby Suggs cared for Sethe on her arrival in Ohio? (93) Does Sethe express love for her children on their reunion?

What physical object has survived the journey? (earrings, 94)

52. What psychological changes/adjustments does Sethe undergo after escaping from slavery? (95)

53. What is the purpose of the sudden shift to the present tense on page 95? What seems to threaten Sethe, and how is she healed? (97)

54. What do you make of Beloved's participation in the ritual? Of what crime does Denver accuse her, and is her accusation just? (101)

55. What resolution does Sethe come to in the clearing?

56. What kind of formal education does Denver receive, and how does it end?

57. What effect does the family trauma have on Denver? (103)

58. What declaration does Baby Suggs make on her deathbed? Why do you think she makes this?

59. What meaning does the scene of copulating turtles have for Beloved?


60. What were the circumstances of Paul D.'s prison work camp?

61. What had happened before his escape north? Who was Brandywine, and why had Paul D. tried to kill him?

62. What features of his reaction does the story concentrate on? (106-07)

63. How are the prisoners bound together? Why is no separation permitted between them?

64. How do they occupy their time? (108-109)

65. Why wasn't Paul D. able to escape from the prison farm?

66. What is the significance of the rain in this section? (109-110) What finally frees the men?

67. What is the relationship of the convicts to the Indians? What do we learn about the history of the Indians? (111)

68. How does Paul D. finally escape? (112) Who tells him how to go North, and what is this advice? (112) Is it accurate? Is it symbolic?


69. What effect does Beloved have on Paul D.? How is this comprehensible within the novel's themes?

70. Why does Paul D. feel uncomfortable in the house?

71. What features are ascribed to Sethe, and what is Paul D.'s response to her? (115)

72. What might motivate Beloved to entice Paul D.? (116) Does Beloved understand the implications of her suggestion? Should these episodes be read literally?

73. Why does her solicitation cause him to say, "Red heart"? To whose heart does he refer? Does this indicate a return to feeling?

74. Had he been sleeping when this incident occurred? (117)


75. What indicates Denver's need for a relationship with her sister's ghost? (118)

76. Why do Beloved's memories center on a bridge? (119)

77. How does Sethe reconstruct Beloved's past? Is she completely honest? (119)

78. How does Denver reconstruct it? Why doesn't she ask Beloved about the latter's behavior?

78. What is Denver's attitude toward her sister? (121) Beloved's toward Sethe? What emotions does Denver feel when Beloved seems to disappear? (123)

79. What unexpected event occurs at the end of the chapter? What does Beloved seem to see?


80. Why is Paul D. so upset by Beloved? What had been Garner's attitude toward slaves? How had the teacher departed from these views?

81. Is he able to tell Sethe the truth about his problem?

82. What is Beloved's reaction to Sethe and Paul D.'s courtship?

83. What is the answer to Paul D.'s question to Denver, whose ally are you? How is the problem of his sleeping place solved?

84. What is the purpose of the flashback to an earlier act of sex?

85. What does Sethe think motivates Paul D.'s expression of desire for a child? Does she reciprocate? (132) Why or why not?

86. What had she dreamt of for years?


87. What is the significance of Beloved's loss of a tooth? What does she struggle to resist?

88. What symbolism seems latent in the chapter's final passage?


89. What does the name "Halle" mean?

90. What had motivated Stamp Paid to pick blackberries? (136) What results ensued from this act?

92. How do the neighbors respond to Baby Sugg's party? (137) What ominous presentiment does she have?

93. How had she received her name, and why does she keep it? (142) Why may she not want to use the name Jenny Whitlow?

94. What comments on slavery are made in this chapter? (140-41) How had the escaped slaves responded to freedom?

95. What were the circumstances of Baby Suggs' marriage? What have been some of the limitations of Garner's relatively lenient treatment? (146)

96. What have been some of the disappointments of Baby Suggs life? Is she successful in finding her children? (147)

97. What special powers is she alleged to have?

98. What had been her views on religion? (146)

99. What may be some effects of having a mother-in-law, not a mother, dominate Sethe's past?


From whose point of view is the murder described? (member of the group coming to seize Sethe and her children, 148-49) How does the speaker's testimony frame our view of the situation? What does he regret, and at whom is his anger directed?

What has Sethe tried to do? What effect does her action have on Sethe? (150) Under what ominous symbolic circumstances does she nurse her remaining young child? (152)


How does the narrator imagine that Ohio's now-dead Native Americans would view the actions of its present inhabitants? (155)

What account is contained in the newspaper article Stamp Paid shows Paul D.? On what grounds does Paul D. reject its authenticity?

What does the narrator state about the contemporary standard of newspaper coverage for African Americans? (156)

How had the neighbors responded when they saw the posse of white men in search of Sethe? What difference had their failure to warn Sethe had?


What characterizes Sethe's account of her past action 18 years earlier? (describes ecstasy of sudden freedom, shows no remorse)

What do we learn is her level of literacy? (161)

What had motivated her to try to kill her children? Does she believe the results were at least in part justified? (164-65)

What is Paul D.'s reaction to all this? (feels she had no right to do this; her love "too thick")


What motivates Stamp Paid to revisit 124 after Paul D.'s departure? (170) What misgivings does he have, and on what grounds? (171) Do you think he has in fact been at fault?

What disappointing and unhappy circumstances had characterized Baby Suggs's funeral? (171) What does the reader infer from this about Sethe's mental state?

What motives inspire Sethe to look for old skates in her house? (174) What characterizes the skating of Sethe, Denver and Beloved?

What is meant by "the click"? (175) What "clicks" in Sethe's mind, and if so, is this recognition truly a new one? (cmp. Freud's "uncanny")

How had Baby Suggs responded years past to Sethe's violent deed? (177)

What is revealed by Stamp Paid's reflections after this narration? What has been the nature of Sethe's life in the interim?

What is shown by the account of the debate between Stamp Paid and Baby Suggs? For what does he reproach her, and what is her point of view? (she wants to fix on something harmless, 177)

What forms of racial violence do we learn have occurred after the Civil War? (lynchings and other violent acts, 180)

What bit of material remains especially troubles Stamp Paid, and why? (ribbon wound in hair, 180)

What happens after the departure of Paul D.? (they go skating, Sethe realizes Beloved's identity, Sethe decides not to leave home again, 183)

183ff. What does the reader learn from Sethe's narration of part of the event? What attitude does she preserve toward her deceased daughter?

In her memories, how had other black people died during that period?

What changes signify that the spirit of Beloved may be about to return? At what point has the event "occured"? (184)

What is significant about Stamp Paid's failed efforts at communication? (189)

What upsetting events from her life at Sweet Home now recur to Sethe's mind? Why had the schoolteacher asked his pupils to record Sethe's characteristics? (193)

How had the group of slave friends tried to escape? (197-98) What caused their plans to fail?

What is the significance of the metaphor of the jungle? (197-98) How is it related to earlier metaphors of the tree?

200ff. What does Sethe remember about the events directly before her attempted escape? Her mother's death? (203)

How do you interpret the chapter's ending? (wishes for death, 204)

Since the entire book can be said to be an unravelling of memories, what can be said about the sequence in which these occur? Are the most disturbing memories held for the last?

205ff. Who narrates this chapter? In the wake of Beloved's death, what does Denver fear? Why had she left school? (loses hearing, 206)

Where had she fled for comfort? (sleeps with Baby Suggs, 207)

What memories does she have of her father? (intelligent, eager to learn, 208)

What remarks does Baby Suggs make about sex? (209)

What are features of Beloved's first interior soliloquy? (210-13) What new details do we learn about the family's escape?

What has changed by the second soliloquy? (214-217) How do you interpret the blending of speakers? The final statements, "You are mine" (217)?

218ff. What are Paul D.'s memories as he sits in church? What had been his experiences of family? (219)

What critique does he give (and the narrator through him) of the behavior of even "decent" slaveowners? (220) What motive does he give for the attempt to recapture Sethe in Cincinnati? (228)

What account does Paul give of the attempted escape? (222-228)

What gruesome fate had Sixto endured, and how had Paul D. escaped? What had enabled Sethe to escape?

230ff. How does Paul D. respond to Stamp Paid's offer of a place to stay? (231)

After he visits the cemetery, what disturbing incidents does Stamp Paid recount from his own past? What effect have these events had on him? (232-33)

What comments does Paul D. make to him on Beloved and her arrival? (234-35) How are we to interpret his final appeal and question? (235)

Part III (239-275)

239ff. What changes occur in Beloved and Sethe? What finally prompts Denver to act, and what difficulties does she face in doing so? (243)

Which of her grandmother's statements does she remember at this point, and what final admonition does she obey? ("Know it, and go on out in the yard. Go on." 244)

What do we learn about Lady Jones (247), and what motivates her and other neighbors to help Denver? To intervene in the Sethe/Denver household? (256)

In visiting the abolitionist family, what incongruous and upsetting sight does Denver notice? (pickaninny statue, 255) What is the effect of introducing this detail?

What causes Denver to sit outside waiting on the day of the confrontation? (259) What group enters the yard, and how do they perceive Beloved? (261)

How does Sethe respond, and why? (262) What seems to be her mental state? What happens to Denver? Beloved?

What effect does Beloved's departure/removal/exorcism have on those left behind, especially Denver?

Who later testifies to Beloved's departure, and how does he describe her? (naked woman with fish for hair, 267)

Do you find it convincing that Beloved leaves at this point? That her departure precedes her final reabsorption into death, and a forgetting?

Why do you think Sethe is never prosecuted for her attempted attack? (Mr. Bodwin had thought she was attacking Beloved or Denver, and no one disabuses him of this error, 264)

What ironies do he and Stamp Paid find in the fact that it is Mr. Bodwin who was attacked? (he had saved her from being hung for infanticide, 265)

What prompts Paul D.'s return? What further memories of the Civil War recur to him as he enters 124? (267-69)

In what condition does he find Sethe (271-72), and how does he respond? (273)

What do you think happens at the novel's end--is Sethe healed? Do she and Paul D. make a life together? Are they reunited with their community? Or does she die?

If these issues are to some extent unresolved, why do you think this is so?

pp. 274-275 What is the tone of the concluding section? How would you describe its language? What purpose does it serve?

Was this a story "to pass on," and if not, why has it been passed on? Or is the statement a form of paradox?

By classical definition, a tragedy effects purgation and cleansing by the evocation of pity and terror. Is this work intended as a tragedy? A comedy of redemption? Or some mixture of the two?

What is added to this novel by its organization through metaphor and allegory? By the unravelling of plot through a series of flashbacks?

Page numbers from Alfred Knopf (Plume) edition, 1988.

  Copyright © 2010 Florence S Boos, The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.
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